Great white sharks have become a fact of life along Cape Cod, where beaches were temporarily shuttered more than 100 times because of shark sightings this summer.
But that wasn’t always the case.
It all started 15 years ago, when a 14-foot great white got stuck in a salt pond near the Elizabeth Islands. While there had been scattered reports of great whites over the years, it was the first time that many residents — and even some state officials — had ever seen a living, breathing great white shark up close.
The echoes of 1975’s “Jaws” were obvious. But the 1,700-pound female shark’s two-week stay in the shallow water near Naushon Island was also largely the beginning of the Cape’s complicated new relationship with the oceans’ apex predators.
To mark the anniversary of the shark’s appearance, we tracked down some of the people tasked with moving the massive fish back to the open seas. This is the story of the Naushon Island great white shark, as told by those who were there.
(These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
The saga began with a rumor. It was Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2004, and local sportfishing captain J.C. Burke had heard what sounded like the mother of all fish tales: A great white shark was swimming in a coastal inlet near Naushon Island. Burke knew just who to call . . .
Burke: I called up Greg and said, “Hey, this is the story, what do you think?” And he said, “Let’s see what tomorrow looks like.” He’d had reports before that turned out to be other things, so there was a little skepticism before we got there.
Greg Skomal, senior biologist and shark expert, Division of Marine Fisheries: The next morning I got up and ran over to Falmouth and picked up J.C. I threw some rods on the boat, thinking that I’d take the day off and just spend it fishing.
When the pair arrived at the inlet, they saw a few curious boats puttering in the water as well as bystanders on the footbridge to the north. Suddenly, something unmistakable emerged from the water.
Burke: Just like out of the movie, here comes this big fin up out of the water and it’s coming right towards the boat. It just looks like the “Jaws” photo. I mean we could have reached out and touched it. And I looked at [Skomal] and said, “Well?”
Skomal: I said, “Oh my God that’s a white shark!” I may have screamed it: “That’s a white shark! I can’t believe it’s a white shark!” Maybe even a few expletives in there. But it was absolutely amazing to me.
Though great whites were very rarely spotted close to shore, Skomal had come prepared with a high-tech satellite tag — never before affixed to a great white in the north Atlantic.
Burke: The first day it’s there, and Greg had a shark tag, believe it or not. [But] we didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to try to flip the boat over?
Skomal: The shark was basically circling. It was clearly probing the shoreline, seeking a way out. As it was doing these circles, we realized it would come into shallow water. And that’s when I placed the tag on the fish.
Burke: He just planted [the tag] in it and it didn’t even flinch. It just kept on going. Like he hardly even touched it.
Dan McKiernan, deputy director, state Division of Marine Fisheries: It was a watershed event. Greg had been in the business of tagging some large sharks. But he did not have an opportunity to tag a great white shark, so he was excited about that.
Skomal: There was great scientific merit to doing that. But also I’m thinking, “This is such a rare event that I want to do it as quickly as possible, because at some point this fish is just going to leave — it’s going to get out of here.” At the time I tagged it, I didn’t fully understand to the extent of which it was trapped.
Already, rumors about the shark swimming in the small inlet were spreading. The growing frenzy prompted officials to close off the area in the interest of protecting both the public and the shark.
Peter Hanlon, retired captain with the state Environmental Police: There was no controls over it. There was nothing. It was people coming in the channel, looking at the shark, and I’m saying, “We’ve got to control this, because there will be problems.” We basically held it tight after that.
Skomal: It exploded on multiple fronts. You had this private local community, which was dealing with this large white shark trapped in its pond; you had the media frenzy that exploded that day and persisted for the next week . . . and then you had the general public’s massive interest in it.
Burke: At one point when we were in there, before they got control of the scene, a guy comes through with two kids in a 9-foot Zodiac with a 4-horsepower outboard, and the shark came up and went by and the fin was higher out of the water than the kids were in the boat. Not good, not good.
McKiernan: The Elizabeth Islands are all privately owned, and [the residents] weren’t particularly interested in the publicity. After a few days people were getting a little impatient, like, “You’ve got to move this shark out of here.”
With the scene secured, officials turned their attention to freeing the shark. By then, they’d surmised that the shark had entered the inlet through a shallow gap at the southern end of the pond.
John Chisholm, state shark biologist working with the Division of Marine Fisheries: We kept thinking that with one of the big high tides the shark would leave, but then it didn’t leave.
Skomal: We didn’t know what to do. But to me as a scientist I was looking at it going, “I’ve got to the get the attention of this thing.” You’ve got to appeal to it somehow. So how do I get its attention? I get its attention through its various sensory mechanisms. Can I use sound, can I use sight, can I use electro-reception?
McKiernan: Everybody was putting their heads together. Everyone was scratching their heads to come up with ideas.
Skomal: I tried enticing it with a dead seal carcass at one point, with fresh tuna, thinking I could lure it out. We tried a variety of bait to appeal to its sense of taste and smell. But this thing is stressing out. It’s not in normal feeding mode; it’s trapped in a place it doesn’t want to be. At one point we used a bunch of [ground limestone] to set up kind of a cloud of very poor visibility . . . thinking that we could obscure its vision, and allow this plume of water to push it out.
Chisholm: That didn’t work at all.
Skomal: We were trying everything. I called this company called Shark Shield ... We wanted to generate an overwhelming electrical field that would be so uncomfortable for the shark that it would go and swim in the other direction. The shark hit the electrical field and freaked out. I said, “This is going to work.” [But] as the shark came back it encountered the electrical field again, and swam right through it. It didn’t give a damn.
Chisholm: After it showed an initial reaction and then just never showed a reaction after that, we started thinking this must not be working. [And someone] reached down into the water to grab it and he got shocked. So we knew they were working, It just didn’t faze the shark at all.
Skomal: Of course the nuclear option at the end of the day was, we’re going to get a bigger boat in here, grab this thing by the tail, and yank it out. I knew I didn’t want to go there. It would have been a horrible spectacle.
Media coverage and public awareness about the shark continued to grow, making the job of removing the shark even more stressful.
Skomal: I was doing press conferences with leadership in my agency, updating the media and general public. My e-mail inbox was inundated with a full spectrum of e-mails ranging from, “Please save this animal,” to “Why don’t you just kill it?” to “If you don’t save the animal, we are going to kill you.” It was unbelievable. You name it.
Hanlon: This became a real major story nationwide. ... We were hearing that movie stars — no, famous musicians — were going to come to visit the shark. People would rent boats in Woods Hole, or rent somebody to bring them over to the island.
Burke: People were sight-seeing from the beach. There were a lot of people running back-and-forth so they could see this great white shark and making money off of it. It was quite the show.
Chisholm: There was one woman who wanted to swim out and sing to the shark to get it to leave. There was a lot going on. I barely slept at all in those two weeks.
Michael Levenson, Globe reporter: At this point, sharks were not part of our public consciousness on the Cape. This was a totally novel thing. The idea of seeing a shark on the Cape was like seeing a tiger in West Roxbury or something. ... It was kind of a scene to be out there.
By Sept.30, the scientists were at their wit’s end. But McKiernan had an idea.
McKiernan: It was midweek of the second week I’m driving to work stuck in traffic and I’m thinking, “How do we move this fish?” And it dawned on me. . . . I called Mark [Simonitsch, a local fisherman] and said, “Hey, this is what’s going on, what do you think?” and he said, “Let me call Ernie.”
Ernie Eldredge, Chatham fisherman: We watched the shark come back and forth a few times and went up and down the inlet that was there, and said, “This looks like a no-brainer here, this looks like it’s easy.”
McKiernan: [They] said they could do it. We had a grant that was still open at the time called Fishermen Helping Scientists — it was a federal grant — and we said, “This would be perfect.” So we paid them for their time to help us.
On Oct. 1, Simonitsch and Eldredge, a weir fisherman with experience trapping fish with the ancient technique used by Native Americans, left and then returned with mesh nets the next day.
Eldredge: We had observed the shark and kind of knew what its habits were. We just picked a point in the inlet and stretched the net across, tied both ends of it, sat there and waited for the shark to come back. When it came back, it encountered the net, and turned and went the other way. We said, “OK, this is going to work.”
Skomal: They started stringing these weir nets so that when the shark started to circle in the pond, as it would go toward the outlet, they would string a net right across the pond and cut the pond in half. And so the shark did the turn at the outlet and came back toward the north and hit the net. It immediately realized it was a barrier and it turned around. It was working.
Chisholm: It was an incredible feat of labor to haul and reset those nets, leap-frogging them the whole way and finally getting the shark down to the south end.
But no matter what they did, they couldn’t get the shark through the rocky gap at the southern edge of the inlet.
Skomal: [It] wouldn’t leave through that southern outlet. So we had these two nets strung across and the weir guys said we’re done, we really can’t do much more.
Eldredge: We pulled the net as tight as we could get it, and as close to the outlet as we could get it, and we just sat there and waited and hoped that it would just swim out. It was very hesitant to go over.
The shark had appeared to be weakening from chronic stress. The growing team of scientists and fishermen knew they needed to free it from the inlet. Hanlon, the police captain and cranberry farmer, had one more idea.
Hanlon: [One time] I ran up in front of him and turned my boat toward him and I punched the throttle, and I put the propeller wash in front of where he was going to swim, and he turned around. [I realized] if I could turn him around with propeller wash, I could turn him around with a cranberry pump.
The team loaded the high-powered pump and hose onto a boat. Anytime the shark circled in the enclosure surrounded by the nets, they would blast it with water.
Skomal: We were kind of herding it with the water pressure. We were able to hit the water on the left side of the shark and it turned right, and then hit the water on the right side of the shark and we just kept doing that back-and-forth until the shark went straight, and it freaked out and drove itself right over the eelgrass bed between the rocks and into the greater Lackeys Bay. . . . [But] it was virtually just trapped in a much bigger pond.
Eldredge: We took the net and put it across the inlet so that the shark wouldn’t come back in there, and left the net there and gave it a couple of days. It just seemed to want to keep going around in circles and not go out into the deeper water.
Skomal: If the tide goes out, this thing could drown easily because it was much shallower and it was a much broader area. And I’m thinking, “How the hell are we going to get it out of this one?”
McKiernan: The fishermen started to build this vertical curtain of chain that they could drag and maybe get the shark to react to and head in the other direction, but that didn’t really work very well.
Skomal: [So] we figured if we got two boats, and two high-pressured water pumps, we could corral the shark and herd it out of this bigger bay [and into Vineyard Sound].
Chisholm: We came back with a bunch of people and multiple boats and multiple firehoses and pumps and we started trying to steer it out manually, spraying it in a coordinated effort.
Eldredge: In the end, they used the fire hose and got behind it with the fire hose . . . and they were kind of cattle herding, but it was shark herding. And all of a sudden it decided it was going to leave.
The team of fishermen and scientists chanted “Go! Go! Go!” as the shark traversed the eelgrass beds and then swam between a shoal and boulders. On Oct. 4, the shark was back in the open ocean.
Eldredge: We were sitting there in the boat and it came up and it turned right beside us, and it kind of rolled up on its side when it did. It bumped into the side of the boat, and we just kind of reached over and petted it — and off it went.
Chisholm: It was such a great accomplishment to actually get the shark out and be all excited that it was the first white shark tagged in the Atlantic.
Skomal: It worked. We got the shark out! That was the real high-point of the week — or the two weeks.
The stress and pressure from the media and locals would soon lift. But the drama didn’t end there.
Skomal: Forty-five minutes later, the tag came off. I went from a really high high, to a low low. It was really disappointing. I watched that tag for 13 days stay on that shark, and then once it got out, there was a malfunction in the programming of the software of the tag that caused it to abort its mission. It basically was in shallow water for too long.
Chisholm: Right when I got home that night, Greg called me and said, “The tag popped off,” and I was like, “What?!” Oh, that was like a punch in the stomach.
McKiernan: It was so disappointing because we are all working to get this shark freed and a lot of us were motivated by the fact that we’d have the first tag on one of these in the East Coast . . . and it failed.
None of them knew it at the time, but the Naushon Island shark was just the beginning.
Chisholm: It was really an interesting moment when you look at the history of humans and sharks. It really showed that people’s perceptions about sharks in general were changing, from “This is a man-eater, kill it,” to “Hey, let’s save that shark.”
Skomal: [At the time, McKiernan] said to me — because he knew I was disappointed that the tag didn’t work — he goes, “Greg, you know what, you never know what’s going to happen. In a few years, you may be tagging these things left and right.” And he was right.